Given that Frank Herbert’s Dune is considered the hallmark of science-fiction and perhaps the corollary to Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, it’s worth mentioning how little technical science the novel involves. Research informs me this absence was done on purpose as Herbert opted for “soft” science in order to focus on other narrative foundations—and while I heartily endorse his decisions, I cannot repress my surprise.
While much acquainted with Dune spinoffs (movie, video game, popular culture), I had never explore its worm infested pages until this week. I’m late to the party, I know. Part of this is due to a misapplied zealotry with past novels of a “you already should have read this” quality. Knowing I should read them has caused me to dive in without the necessary state of mind or dedication to appreciate their lofty auspices. Thankfully, in the instance of Dune, I readied my mind in advance so as not to read with surface comprehension and instead allow myself time to sift through the sandy details (i.e. flip vigorously to the various appendices and maps) and give a story of this magnitude the attention it so rightly deserves. Naturally, it did not disappoint: As Paul Atreides and his family relocate to the desert planet of Arrakis (also know as Dune), disaster soon befalls them. In the midst of their trials they are inundated with the whispers of a prophecy—a coming messiah who will bring paradise to the planet’s barren wasteland.
This summary, as most summaries do, is far too simplistic, even puerile to give credence to the extraordinary world and world-building of Dune. In fact, this cannot be overstated. Even as I’m probably guilty of giving authors more world-building credit than they ostensibly deserve—I’ve never written a sci-fi nor fantasy novel and the prospect of world-building in one is so over-daunting that its cyclical logic is why I don’t even attempt to write one in the first place—not a tree (or a lack of a tree) feels out of place here. The internet informs me that Herbert spent six years researching and building the ecology of his planet. And it shows.
The interweaving of industry, politics, religion, ecosystems (among others) frankly has no comparison to any Sci-fi or Fantasy I’ve read. For example, each chapter contains an epigram from various “sources” and “books” recounting the history of Paul Atreides and his rise to power and I kept thinking “boy, I really want to read these… non-existent books.” Characters are complex, contradictory, even messy. They have so much history pulling on them, that as a reader, I cannot help but believe they derive their motivations from authentic and authoritative sources. Most poignant is the Fremen’s dedication and religious rites associated with water. When you live in a desert, what can be more sacred than H2O? The fractured mysticism is a natural byproduct. It all makes sense.
My only 21st century gripes (not the technology!) are purely current literary conventions that I’m accustomed to and that I prefer. I’ve mentioned them in passing before, but 1) character thought in italics, and 2) the overuse of ellipses to relay dramatic overtures or long pauses are two such conventions which Herbert uses and of which I generally eschew. The third is not a gripe, but a pontification: I would confidently posit that the “narrator” of Dune is a limited omniscient narrator. This means, in the simplest terms, that the narrator can be in any character’s head at any given time, but while there, cannot know the thoughts of the other characters (although there might be places where this breaks down). So 3) my question? rumination? realization? is that I’m so rutted into single narrators (or rotating characters designated by white space or chapter breaks) that to have dozens of characters’ thoughts splattering over the pages without a transition took me a while to be comfortable with.
But all said, my minor reservations do nothing to undermine this literary tour de force. To honestly apprehend, to fully plumb the depths of this deep deep well that is Dune, to drink of its waters, I’ll likely have to read it two, yay maybe three more times. The only conflict is finding the time. A true classic.
Think you have a sci-fi equal of similar complexity? Leave a comment, I’d love to know. 4.5/5 stars.